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Georgia: Pope Ends Visit After Mixed Reception

Pope John Paul late yesterday completed a two-day visit to Georgia. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Gallant reports from the capital Tbilisi that the visit suggests the Pope faces real obstacles in bridging the divide between Roman Catholicism and at least some of the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe.

Tbilisi, 10 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul's trip to Georgia was billed as an attempt to build bridges with the country's Orthodox Church, but it looks like the Vatican has a tough job ahead.

The Pope's two-day visit was his second to a predominantly Orthodox country and was received by Orthodox Church leaders in Tbilisi much differently than his earlier pilgrimage to Romania.

When the Pope visited Romania in May, he and Patriarch Teoctist participated in joint prayers and services. There were no such joint prayers or services during the Pope's brief stop in Georgia.

Some Orthodox Church leaders voiced opposition to the trip, fearing the visit might convince Orthodox followers to convert to Catholicism, which has about 50,000 followers in Georgia.

Reports in Tbilisi say the Vatican agreed to hold yesterday's papal mass in the indoor Sport Palace because Orthodox Church leaders were reluctant to allow the Pope to celebrate an outdoor mass in a larger public square.

Yesterday morning, the patriarchate of the Orthodox press office printed a letter in Georgian newspapers urging Orthodox followers n-o-t to go to the mass. The letter said members of the Orthodox church do not have the right to participate in a service conducted by a different faith.

The dingy, dome-shaped Sport Palace was a very unusual site for a papal mass on a foreign visit. Such masses are usually celebrated outdoors before tens of thousands of people. The Pope was warmly greeted by a crowd of some 10,000 when he walked onto the altar to begin the mass, attended by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. The Pope greeted the crowd at the start of the mass with a traditional blessing and the crowd gave the traditional response:

"In the name of the father, the son and the Holy Spirit (Crowd response)."

The President embraced the Pope on the altar when the mass ended.

The Pope's message during his visit, in addition to stressing the need to bridge the divide between Christian churches, also focused on the effort to build peace in the turbulent Caucasus region. The arena where the Pope delivered his mass is located across the street from one of the many state-owned hotels which house refugees from the separatist conflict in Abkhazia.

When the Pope arrived on Monday, Patriarch Ilia said the visit would help establish peace in the Caucasus. For his part, the 79-year-old Pope said Georgia's current task is to help establish peace throughout the region, and to promote harmony and cooperation.

There has been media speculation that Shevardnadze pressured Patriarch Ilia to invite the Pope. Shevardnadze dismissed the reports at a news conference on Monday. Vatican press spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told RFE/RL yesterday that he was not surprised there was some opposition to the visit considering the long-standing differences between the churches. But he said the meetings between the Pope and the Patriarch were "very cordial" and that the atmosphere between the churches is improving.

The Orthodox opposition to the Pope's visit can also be traced, in part, to the church's perception of the pontiff as a political rather than a spiritual leader. Zurab Tskhovrebadze, a spokesman from the press service of the patriarchate, said recently that political circles in Georgia favored the visit because the pope is an important political figure representing a state -- the Vatican -- that has great influence on political events. He called the visit a recognition of Georgia's independence from the former Soviet Union.

But Tskhovrebadze asserted that while Orthodox Christians are tolerant by nature, they are not indifferent to their own faith. He said the church's leaders will receive representatives of other faiths, such as the Pope. But he said there must be no compromise in relations with leaders of different religions.

The Pope, for his part, has made an extra effort to reach out to other faiths during the waning years of his papacy. He is hoping that his attempts to improve relations with the Orthodox churches in Romania and Georgia will help pave the way for an eventual pilgrimage to Russia.

Valls told RFE/RL yesterday that the Pope "very much" wants to meet with Russian Patriarch Alexy, but that no definite plans have been made for the trip. Valls said that every papal trip to a predominantly Orthodox country will bring new hope for improved relations with the Orthodox Church.

Patriarch Alexy said again yesterday that too many differences remain between the churches for the Pope to make a trip to Russia in the near future.